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A Certain Talent

Habibula, Giles (2819–?): Hero of Humanity (with cluster), Acclamation of Green Hall (with three clusters), Guardian of the Keeper, Grand Solar Cross (with cluster), Star of Terra (with cluster), Medusean Campaign Medal, Cometeer Campaign medal, Legion of Merit, Fellow of Solarian Institute. One of only three individuals (see also Jay Kalam, Hal Samdu) to be twice awarded humanity's highest award for valor and service, Giles Habibula's career has so far spanned almost a full century of service to the Legion of Space. Although he has persistently refused promotion to officer's rank, Habibula has . . .

A Solarian Who's Who, Vol. 36
Star Press, Phobos, 2962


Habibula, Giles, a.k.a. Grenz Harnat, Gorma Habranah, Gerniak Helthir, Gorsah Hamah. Age 35. Brown hair, gray eyes. Height 6'1". Weight 275 lbs. Arrested for: grand larceny, grand theft spacecraft, grand theft technology, burglary, assault with a deadly weapon, resisting arrest, aggravated assault, and public drunkenness. No convictions. Presently wanted on charges of illegal gambling practices. A master of locks and adaptive technology, Habibula should be considered armed and dangerous. A reward of seventy-five thousand dollars has been posted by the Venusberg Gambling Commission for information leading to his arrest and conviction on charges of tampering with electronic gambling devices.

Venusberg Police Department
Records Division, 2854


His arrogance was his downfall.

Or perhaps it wrongs him to call it "arrogance." Perhaps "confidence" would be a better word, for he had a certain talent he knew none could equal, and the challenge was irresistible to a man of his nature. And so it should have been, given how carefully it had been crafted to that end. . . . 


Sweat trickled down Giles Habibula's broad face in the steamy, moonless dark. The eerie cries of a night such as Earth had never known came from the jungles, where huge, armored sauroids splashed and grunted as they fought one another for life—and food—while the strange, scaled "birds" of Venus waited to pick the losers' bones. But those were familiar sounds, and they came from the far side of the compound wall, and Habibula paid them no heed. He'd hidden in the shrubbery against the wall since the chalet staff ushered the last public visitor away, and now he waited patiently for the staff to leave, as well.

He must be mad to attempt an escapade such as this when the mortal Gambling Commission had already offered its reward for his poor, underappreciated self, he thought with a smile, but the curse of Giles Habibula's life was ever the same. There was never time enough for all the splendid food, the fine wines, the beautiful women, the challenges to his wit and skill, and when three of the four combined in a single temptation, it was more than mortal man could do to turn his back upon it. Especially when the lass who'd set him onto it was such a fine, beautiful one. Ah, the fire in those blue eyes, and that lovely head of midnight hair! And the spirit of her, too. The Solar System might see her like once in a lifetime, he told himself, and as well for the rest of us, for we'd never survive two of her!

He smothered a chuckle and checked the time once more. Just past twenty-two hundred. He'd spent two days timing the staff's schedule, and he nodded in satisfaction as he stole silently out of the imported Earth shrubbery about the chalet's protective wall.

The grounds were well lit, but the chalet's owners relied on automatic systems, nothing so fallible as humans, so there were no roving patrols, and he'd plotted his course with care. He crept across flower beds and grass like a great, prowling cat, avoiding the cameras and illuminating spotlights as he flowed through puddles of inky shadow. He paused just beyond the chalet itself, scanning for infrared beams, and chuckled once more as he found them. Ah, the wit of the lad who'd planned the security here! It was a mortal fine job he'd done, but not the equal to Giles Habibula!

He sidled to the side, studying the interlinking play of the beams, and for all his massive bulk, he moved quiet as the breeze. Fat other men might think him, and so, indeed, he was, but there was muscle under that fat, and he carried himself with a dancer's grace, placing each foot with feline caution. And even as he surveyed the challenge, his mind went back to the beautiful young woman awaiting him in the Venusberg bar.


"It won't be easy, Mr. Harnat," the woman called Ethyra Coran warned, and Giles Habibula—Grenz Harnat, to her—nodded gravely. "On the other hand," she went on, "my client will pay a half million dollars for the Dragon's Eye, and they may have been just a bit too clever in the way they planned the security."

"Ah, and have they now?" The remnants of a stupendous meal lay in ruins before him, and he sipped more wine—a splendid Martian Burgundy—as he listened to her. A half million was a paltry value to set on the famed Dragon's Eye, yet it seemed reasonable enough under the circumstances. The flawless Martian ruby was priceless, but it was also half the size of a man's head, and the very size which made it so rare and beautiful would make it impossible to fence on the open market.

"Your client's not thinking to have it cut, is he?" Habibula asked after a moment. Ethyra raised an eyebrow at him in perplexity, and he shrugged. "I'll have no part of it if he is," he explained. "A mortal crime against nature it would be to break up a lovely bauble such as that."

"A burglar with esthetics?" She laughed in sheer delight at the thought, then sobered. "No, Mr. Harnat. My client intends to retain it for, ah, his private collection."

"Does he now?" Habibula nodded in approval, opened another bottle of wine, and concentrated on his glass as he poured. "And how might it be they've been 'a bit too clever,' lass?" he asked.

"They're relying as much on misdirection as on security," she replied. "No one on Venus is supposed to know the gem is here, so they've stayed away from banks and regular vaults. Instead, they've lodged it with Samuel Ulnar, and he's hidden it in his chalet."

"The Ulnar Chalet?" Habibula looked up from his glass so abruptly he spilled wine, and his gray eyes brightened. "In his cellars, is it?"

"Why, yes." Ethyra sounded surprised, and he smiled happily. He'd heard of those cellars. "Samuel Ulnar is on Earth, so the chalet is officially unoccupied," she added. "The Dragon's Eye's owners expect that to help divert attention from their own presence, and they were told the Ulnar cellars are one of the most secure places on Venus."

"And so they should be, lass. So they should be," Habibula murmured. The Ulnar cellars, he thought, under the very chalet Zane Delmar, Samuel Ulnar's ancestor, had built seven centuries ago. Its historical significance made it a major tourist attraction, and the Venusian branch of the once all-powerful Ulnar family allowed public tours of its spacious, landscaped grounds. But its interior was private, for it was still home to Samuel Ulnar and his wife . . . and to the finest collection of wines and brandies in the Solar System. A single bottle of Europan champagne from that cellar would fetch five thousand dollars, but what a mortal shame to waste such a vintage on any but the most cultured palate! His eyes gleamed at the thought of what he might find as a byproduct of fetching out the Dragon's Eye, and he beamed at the young woman.

"Just you be telling me all you know of this blessed security," he said.


Habibula continued his cautious circuit of the chalet's inner defenses, then paused. The capacious knapsack on his back—large enough for a dozen bottles plus the Dragon's Eye—held the tools of his trade, and he'd brought along reflectors to defeat the infrared beams if he must. But such a trick was always risky, for even Giles Habibula's wrist could slip and interrupt the beam as he slid them into place. He'd hoped to avoid their use, and he smiled cheerfully as he examined his discovery.

An ornate portico in the neoclassic style of the twenty-second century fronted the chalet, and its sculptures and columns broke up the neat pattern of beams. The security system's designer had done his best to weave an impenetrable net about them, yet there was a small gap where the beams bent and angled about the massive stone sphinxes crouched on either side of the main door. It looked far too tiny for a man of his girth, but appearances could be deceiving, and he estimated its size with care.

Yes, he decided. It would be mortal difficult, but few could match the fearsome agility of Giles Habibula.

He slipped off his knapsack, slid it carefully through the opening, and took another moment to memorize the pattern of the beams before he slipped off his scanners and folded them away into a pocket. Then he folded himself with equal care, embracing the sphinx's stony flank, and eased himself through the same gap. He took his time, creeping past one inch at a time, and sighed with relief as he drew his left foot through at last without sounding an alarm.

A mortal fine job you did, my lad, he thought at the security system's designer, but not so fine as to be stopping Giles Habibula!

He gathered up his knapsack once more, took out his scanners, and checked for any inner perimeter of beams. There was none, and he stepped closer to the chalet's front wall to examine the doors and windows.


"Do you really think he'll come, Sir?" the younger man asked.

His older companion never took his eyes from the panel before him. Dozens of alarms, internal and external, reported to that panel, from the motion sensors atop the compound walls to the intricate infrared photoelectric beams covering the chalet's exterior and the manifold internal detection systems on its windows, doors, and hallways. For three nights they'd waited, without even a flicker from any of them, and he understood the youngster's impatience and doubt.

"Oh, he'll come," the older man said. "If he's the man for the job, he'll come."


Habibula slipped cautiously down the hallway. The doors had been too richly fitted with alarms for his taste, but only three separate systems had protected the library windows. The window lock had been a sophisticated Cabloc Seven combination device, but locks were his special talent. A mortal pity an artist of his stature was deprived the recognition his genius deserved, yet such was the way of an uncaring world. And fair or no, there were compensations, he reminded himself with a smile.

He paused in the darkness of a four-way intersection, mentally consulting the map he'd memorized, then nodded with a smile. One more flight of stairs, another door, and then the cellar itself.


"I still wish we could have avoided giving him an accurate map, Sir," the younger man fretted. "Couldn't we have had her—?"

"If he noticed any discrepancies, he'd pull out in a second," the older man said patiently. "Besides, this is supposed to be a test, as well, and how good a test would it be if we deliberately fed him false information?"


Habibula crouched outside the wine cellar door and examined the lock with the aid of a small hand light. Well, now! Isn't that a mortal surprise!

He bent closer and ran his fingers over the three combination wheels, and his eyebrows rose in respect. He'd always heard the Ulnar Chalet had first-class security, and any member of the Ulnar clan could afford the very best, but this was more than he'd expected. It was a Cerberus Twelve, possibly the most complex and effective lock yet designed by man, but he smiled, then gave it a fond pat. A good lock was like a trusted friend to Giles Habibula, for he had a certain way with them, and this one was based on a design his own father had created fifty years before. A mortal pity the old man had been a finer locksmith than a businessman, for his creation had been stolen by sharper, craftier minds, but he'd taught his son its secrets before they had.

Giles smiled again, and his short, strong fingers began to turn the knobs with a delicate precision any surgeon might have envied.


"Sir, I'm sorry, but I really don't think he's coming. Or not tonight, at least." The young man rose and walked about the room for a moment, stretching muscles cramped by hours of motionless waiting. "It's after two hundred. If he was coming, he'd certainly have started by now."

"How do you know he hasn't?" the older man countered. The green-uniformed youngster looked at him in disbelief for a moment, then waved at the console before them.

"If he were here, we'd know about it, Sir," he said positively.

"Ah, you young people!" The older man smiled. "So much faith in technology and so little in human inventiveness! Sit down, James. And remember, he's Giles Habibula."


The Cerberus Twelve clicked finally, and he wiped sweat from his broad face once more despite the cool of the chalet's dehumidified air. A fearsome fine lock you designed, Dad, he thought wryly, and what a mortal sin you never got the credit you deserved for it! Ah, but we'll make them wonder at us when they find it unlocked in the morning, won't we?

He chuckled and stole through into the dusty silence of the wine cellars. One more lock and the Dragon's Eye would nestle safe and secure in his knapsack . . . and then it would be time for what he'd come for.


The younger man stirred restlessly in his chair, only his immense respect for his senior preventing yet another protest. No one had ever defeated a Cerberus Twelve without blasting or cutting. He couldn't believe that even a man of Giles Habibula's reputation could beat this one, and even if he could, there was still no sign of any attempt to penetrate the chalet.

The older man noted his restlessness and hid another smile.



Habibula stowed the Dragon's Eye carefully in his knapsack, and his gray eyes glittered at the huge gem's fearsome beauty. He stroked it with reverent fingers. Ah, I'd like to keep you for myself, he thought at it, just to rest my mortal eyes upon you from time to time. But you're too well known for that, aren't you?

He chuckled, then turned away and rubbed his hands, and his eyes flickered with a deeper greed as they darted about the dimly lit cellar's dusty racks of priceless bottles.

He started his search, trotting down the aisles between the racks, face alight with pleasure as he scanned the dusty labels. A little bonus for my mortal time, he told himself with a grin, and started making his selections. The Napa '72 made a good start, and he followed it with a bottle of the Mons Olympus '90, then the Rothschild '63. Years to savor, all of them, he thought, and then his beady eyes lit in sheer delight.

He stepped closer, unable to believe what he was seeing. Crocyrean Brandy?! It couldn't be!

He blew dust gently from the bottle and sighed in pleasure. It was, and the '51, at that! Over a mortal century old, pressed from the rich black grapes of the Canal Delta, then distilled and aged to await a palate with the sensitivity to appreciate its golden glory. And that palate, he promised himself, would savor it with the respect it deserved.

He lifted the bottle gently from the rack—and froze as alarms howled.


"I don't believe it!" The younger man shot upright in his chair, staring at his console in disbelief. A brilliant light—the very last one on the panel—flashed blood red, and the older man laughed.

"I told you he was Giles Habibula, James!" he said, and reached for his communicator.


Habibula's eyes darted about the cellar in disbelief. He'd checked the racks for motion systems, scanned for invisible detection beams, searched with excruciating care for any possible alarm, and found nothing. He'd even seized the mortal Dragon's Eye without sounding an alert!

He shook himself as the fearsome keening of the alarms burned in his ears. How they'd detected his presence was less important than escaping before they got here. The chances might be slim, but he'd planned his exit route with all his mortal cunning on the way in, and they'd not caught him yet!

He slid the brandy into his knapsack, buckled it shut, and darted from the cellar with a blinding speed that belied his bulk.


"He's on his way out," the older man said urgently into his communicator. "It looks like he's headed for the west annex."


Habibula dashed up stairs and down halls with fleet-footed urgency, avoiding the detectors he'd noted on his way in with instinctive skill and breathing a silent apology to the vintages jouncing in the knapsack on his back. A mortal crime to jostle such fine wine so rudely, but he promised to let it settle properly before he tapped it.

A door slammed somewhere behind him, and he swallowed a curse as feet ran after him. They were too far back to have seen him, but where had they come from?! There were supposed to be no human guards, and even if there were, how did they know which way to pursue? He'd tripped none of the alarms he'd already spotted in his flight, and if he'd missed any on the way in, the guards would surely have reacted before he got clear to the mortal cellars!

But there was no time to think about that, and they were too far back to catch him. Once he made it through the library and onto the grounds, he'd mapped a dozen different escape routes, and—

He darted into the huge library, running for the windows, and crashed full-tilt into something in the darkness. Somehow he managed to curl around to protect the precious bottles in his knapsack as he fell, but whatever had tripped him up wrapped about his legs like a Venusian python. He thrashed and kicked against it, fighting it in the blinding dark, and he'd almost won free when the library lights clicked on.

A reading lamp, he thought. A mortal reading lamp! What fearsome idiot left it standing in the middle of the mortal aisle?!

He started to leap up, then sighed and sat back down as half a dozen men with drawn pistols dashed into the library. He sat on the floor, looking up at them, and wondered what the Legion of Space was doing in the Ulnar Chalet at three in the morning.


"Good morning, Mr. Habibula. My name is Jartha. Colonel John Jartha of the Legion, at your service." The silver-haired man in the green uniform bowed courteously, apparently oblivious to the three enormous legionnaires who had "escorted" Habibula into the chalet's security center, then waved as a beautiful young woman walked in through another door. "I believe you've met Miss Coran," he added.

"Aye, and so I have," Habibula replied. His gray eyes were hard for just an instant, but then he smiled at the young woman and nodded to the knapsack one of the legionnaires held. "I'll take my mortal money in small bills, lass," he said genially, "but I'm afraid you'll have to get the Dragon's Eye from that great, fearsome brute with my knapsack if you're still minded to have it."

The young woman smiled, then shook her head with a trace of sadness, and Colonel Jartha cleared his throat.

"I trust you won't hold this against Miss Coran, Mr. Habibula. She was only doing her job."

"Her job, is it?" Habibula inquired pleasantly.

"Indeed. In fact, she had no choice. Miss Coran's father owns a bar—the Blue Unicorn, I believe it's called—in the Aphrodite Sea just off the coast of New Chicago. Unfortunately, there were a few, ah, irregularities in his departure from the Legion some twenty years ago." Jartha shook his head sadly. "A pity, but you know how military organizations can be."

"So you used mortal blackmail to get the lass to do your bidding, did you?" Habibula observed shrewdly.

"We prefer to think of it as encouraging her to volunteer," the colonel disagreed. "Of course, the Green Hall itself has authorized her father's pardon in return for her services."

"Has it now? And why would the Green Hall be interested in trapping a poor, honest nobody like myself?"

"You wrong yourself, Mr. Habibula." Jartha smiled. "You're quite well known in certain circles. Indeed, when we asked who the most skilled, ah, lock expert in the System might be, our contacts assured us it was either you or Stephen Matha."

"Matha! That fearsome nincompoop?!" Habibula glared at the Legion colonel. "Why, I've more talent in one hand—no, in one mortal finger!—than that great, clumsy, bumbling, overconfident—"

"Please, Mr. Habibula!" Jartha broke in, and Ethyra Coran raised a hand to hide an even broader smile. Habibula slithered to a red-faced halt, and the colonel spoke quickly before he could start up once more. "All our sources assured us Martha fell far short of your stature, Mr. Habibula," he soothed, "and that was the reason we recruited Miss Coran to contact you. We need a man with a certain talent, you see, and this was our way to be sure you had it."

"A test, was it?" Habibula glared at him, angered, despite his circumstances, by the touch to his pride of Matha's name.

"Indeed it was," Jartha assured him, "and one you passed with flying colors. Major Hazell"—he nodded at the younger man standing behind him—"doubted you could do it, but I had complete faith in you."

"Ah?" Habibula seemed to deflate suddenly and heaved an enormous sigh. "Well, it's a mortal pity the major was right, then, isn't it?" He shook his head. "Twenty fearsome years of practice—aye, and the most cunning mind with machines you're like to see in your life, Colonel Jartha—and I've not the least tiniest idea how it was I tripped myself up. The mortal shame of it! Giles Habibula to put his foot in a trap he never even saw!"

"But that was because we cheated at the very end, Mr. Habibula," Jartha said almost compassionately. He took the knapsack from the enormous legionnaire and withdrew the bottle of Crocyrean Brandy. "Fifty-one," he observed. "I believe most connoisseurs regard this as the finest year ever."

"That they do, and with mortal good reason," Habibula said, gray eyes clinging to the bottle with a sort of desperate sorrow as it slipped further from his grasp.

"But it isn't," Jartha said. "Brandy, I mean. This bottle is a fake." Habibula stared at him, and Jartha tossed it back to the legionnaire. "There's a motion sensor and an ultrawave homing device in it, Mr. Habibula. I knew a man of your discerning palate could never pass by '51 Crocyrean, so—"

"The cold, cunning heart of the man!" Habibula said indignantly. "To trap poor Giles Habibula with an empty bottle? An empty bottle of the '51?! You're not human, Colonel!"

"Perhaps not, but I do need you, and I'm afraid that this"—he dug back into the knapsack and extracted the huge ruby—"is the real Dragon's Eye. We've caught you red-handed in its theft, Mr. Habibula. I'd say you're looking at ten to twenty years in the uranium mines of Pluto."

"But it was you yourself set me on to steal the lovely, wicked thing," Habibula pointed out shrewdly, "and that makes you an accomplice!"

"No, Mr. Habibula. It makes Miss Coran an accomplice. I'm not even here."

"You're not—?!" Habibula glared at the colonel for a moment, then darted a look at Ethyra Coran, and the beautiful, sable-haired young woman had gone quite pale. He clenched his jaws until his teeth hurt, then turned his baleful gray eyes back to Jartha. "You've gone to a mortal lot of trouble just to trap poor Giles—aye, and this lass, too, it seems. So what might it be you're wanting of us, Colonel John Jartha?"

"Miss Coran's part is done, assuming you accept my terms, Mr. Habibula."

"And what might those terms be?"

"The Legion of Space is the Green Hall's first line of defense," Jartha replied in a voice that was suddenly deadly serious, "but its final defense is the device known as AKKA. Have you heard of it?"

"Aye, of course I have. Everyone in the mortal System's heard of it!"

"Then you know that there can never be more than a single keeper of the weapon, only one individual who knows the secret of its construction and operation?" Habibula nodded, and Jartha went on heavily. "Unfortunately, that isn't quite the truth of it, Mr. Habibula. Only one person may ever know the secret at one time, yet we can never be certain that no accident or disease will overtake the present Keeper before he or she can pass it on to his or her successor. And so the secret is written down, locked inside a box of adamanite which can be opened only with the fingerprints of the designated successor. Not even you could open that box's lock without them, and any attempt to force it would only destroy its contents."

"Ah?" Habibula cocked his head, considering ways he might have gone about opening such a box. To be sure, the fingerprint provision would make it mortal difficult, but unless there were other safeguards Jartha had chosen not to mention—

"Indeed," the colonel went on, breaking into his thoughts. "But the problem, Mr. Habibula, is that the box has been stolen."

"Stolen?" Giles Habibula paled at the fearsome implications. If someone had stolen the box, if they ever managed to open it and lay hands upon the secret of the device which had overthrown the Purple Hall and the Empire of the Ulnars, the consequences would be unthinkable.

"Stolen," Jartha agreed coldly. "We believe we know by whom, but the man in question is wealthier and more powerful than you can imagine. He could have hidden it anywhere, on any of his estates. He's already killed to secure it, and I see no reason to believe he wouldn't kill again to keep it, but the same contacts in the Green Hall which let him steal it in the first place would quickly warn him of any official move the Legion made against him. Which brings us to you, Mr. Habibula. We had that Cerberus Twelve installed especially for you. If you could defeat it and steal the Dragon's Eye, then perhaps you can also find and steal the Keeper's box back for the Green Hall."

"You're mad," Habibula said flatly. "If he's so fearsomely powerful not even the blessed Legion can defeat him, it would be madness for one man, even Giles Habibula, to cross him!"

"Perhaps, but those are my terms," Jartha said coldly. "You have a choice: accept them, or spend twenty years on Pluto for grand theft."

"Ah, you're an evil, evil man, John Jartha," Habibula said bitterly.

"No, Mr. Habibula, I'm a desperate man. We must reclaim the secret of AKKA. It's just remotely possible they may find a way to open it, or, failing that, they may attempt to kidnap Aladoree, the Keeper's daughter, and force her to open it. She's only three years old, Mr. Habibula. How could she stop them? And to what lengths would men ruthless enough to steal the Keeper's box go in order to force a child to obey them?"

Habibula glared at the legionnaire once more, yet the desperation in Jartha's eyes was genuine, and his own soul cringed at the thought of a child in the hands of wicked men.

"And you'd really send the man you tricked into stealing that mortal bit of rock"—he jabbed his chin at the huge gem Jartha still held—"to the wicked hell of Pluto if I say no?"

"Yes," Jartha said inflexibly. "And if I do, I'll be forced to send Miss Coran, as well."

"Desperate or no, you are a wicked man," Habibula said heavily, "but I've little choice. Yet before I do this, you'll put that"—he gestured to the Dragon's Eye once more—"back where it belongs. Aye, and you'll destroy any mortal record that myself or Miss Coran ever laid hand or eye upon it. I'll not have you sending such a fearsomely beautiful lass as this to Pluto if it should happen I try and fail. Not when it was your own wicked blackmail made her trap poor Giles in the first place."

Ethyra Coran stared at him in disbelief, and Jartha's eyes narrowed.

"A noble sentiment," the colonel said after a moment, "and one I'm inclined to believe is mostly genuine. However, it seems to me that you've forgotten something. If I return the Eye and destroy the records, then I lose my hold on you."

"You've no need for any 'hold,' " Habibula said with dignity. "You'll have my mortal word."

"A comfort, I'm sure," Jartha said dryly. Habibula glared at him afresh, and the colonel scratched his chin thoughtfully. "No, Mr. Habibula, I have a counter-proposal. I'll return the Eye and destroy the records after you enlist in the Legion."

"Enlist? Giles Habibula sign his life away to the mortal Legion of Space?!" Habibula stared at him. "You are mad!" he declared with certainty.

"Not in the least. You do have a certain talent, and it's quite possible the Legion will need it again someday. More immediately, however, the sentence for desertion from the Legion is twenty years on Pluto—more, under special circumstances. I trust your word, Mr. Habibula, but I'll sleep better knowing I have a somewhat more secure grip upon your loyalties."

"Ah, to think it should come to this," Habibula said bitterly. "The Legion of Space bent on shanghaiing poor Giles Habibula! It's a fearsome, wicked thing, indeed it is, to see the Legion stoop so low."

"We do what we must, Mr. Habibula," Jartha replied calmly. He let several minutes drag by, then cocked his head. "Do we have an agreement?"


Seventeen months later, Colonel John Jartha, commander of the Legion of Space's Office of Intelligence, opened the door of his office at the very heart of the Legion's huge headquarters building and stopped dead on the threshold.

His last secret report from Giles Habibula was over six months old, and the colonel had come to the unhappy conclusion that not even Habibula had proved capable of breaking the defenses of the Green Hall's enemies. Jartha had come to like the fat, cunning rogue in the year they'd worked together, and he had felt a gnawing guilt for entrapping the man and sending him to his death, yet as he'd told Habibula that night in the cellars of Ulnar Chalet, he'd had no choice. He hadn't entirely abandoned all hope, but it was growing harder to cling to it, and he'd taken to avoiding responses to Ethyra Coran. The young woman had plagued his office with carefully, innocently worded inquiries about Habibula almost weekly. Her queries had grown almost desperate of late as the silence stretched out, yet Jartha had no heart to confirm Habibula's death to her when any tiny trace of hope remained.

But now he stood just inside his office door, staring at the small, silvery box in the middle of his desk top. It bore no insignia, no marking of any sort except two small, darker ovals—about the size of fingertips—on its top, yet he knew instantly what it was.

He crossed the office slowly and sank into his chair, staring at the box and fearing to touch it, and his mind raced. It was impossible for anyone to break the security on Legion HQ and penetrate to his office. No one could do that . . . except, perhaps, for one man with a certain talent.

He began to smile, and then to chuckle, and reached out to the box at last. He took it in his hand and tossed it lightly on his palm, and even through his heady relief, it seemed impossible that so small and light a thing could hold the secret of so much destruction. They'd have to improve security on it in the future, he thought, and made a mental note to discuss ways to do just that with Legionnaire Habibula.

He paused, then, and his head cocked. Speaking of Habibula . . . ?

He set the box carefully inside the safe built into his desk and spun the combination. It should be safe enough there—from anyone except Habibula, of course—until he could have it conveyed back to the Green Hall under maximum security, and with it tucked away, he could concentrate on other questions. Like the whereabouts of the man who'd stolen it back from the Solar System's enemies and flowed through Legion HQ's security like so much smoke to deposit it on his desk. Now, if he were Habibula, where would he—?

His intercom buzzed sharply, and he pressed the button.


"Sir!" It was James Hazell, and his voice was high with excitement. "Sir, it's Habibula!"

"What about Habibula?" Jartha asked calmly.

"Sir, he's . . . he's deserted!" Hazell sputtered. "He's stolen a small space cruiser right off the Green Hall's landing field, and—"

"Stolen a cruiser, has he?" Jartha's eyes began to gleam.

"Yes, Sir! Right from under our noses—just walked aboard with a forged set of orders on stationery from your office, Sir!"

"Well, that was a bit precipitous of him," Jartha murmured.

"Sir?" Hazell sounded strangled, as if he couldn't credit his superior's calm.

"I said that was a bit precipitous of him," Jartha repeated. "I'd gladly have granted him a furlough."

There was a moment of utter, stunned silence over the intercom, and then Hazell spoke very carefully.

"Uh, Sir—Colonel Jartha—if Habibula's deserted, what about, ah . . . what about a certain box, Sir?"

"Oh, that!" Jartha chuckled. "Now that you mention it, James, I need you to organize a little security detail to return that very box to its rightful place."

"I—it's back, Sir?"

"Well, you could hardly return it if it weren't, now could you?" Jartha observed.

"Uh, no. No, Sir, I don't suppose I could," Hazell said slowly. There was another moment of silence, and then he cleared his throat. "And what about Habibula, Sir? Shall I alert the System patrols to intercept him?"

"I don't believe that will be necessary," Jartha said judiciously.

"But, Sir, he's a deserter!"

"Technically, I suppose you're correct," Jartha agreed, "but if we arrest him and send him to Pluto, we'll only have to let him out again the next time we need his talent. Think of all the time we'd waste."

"But he'll get away, Sir. If he could get the, ah, the box back for us, we'll never find him again if we don't go after him now!"

"I've told you before, James, you have too little faith in human inventiveness. I found Habibula once, and I'm sure I can lay my hand on him again any time I want to."

"You can, Sir?"

"Certainly. Tell me, did he leave on a course to Venus?"

"As a matter of fact, Sir," Hazell said slowly, "he did."

"Just as I thought." Jartha smiled to himself. "Don't worry about it, James," he said.

"Very well, Sir," Hazell said a bit grumpily, and Jartha switched off the intercom with another smile and opened a drawer to look at the clutch of inquiries Ethyra Coran had sent him. He scooped them up and dropped them in the disposal slot, then leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head in thought for several seconds, and his smile became a grin.

He leaned forward and keyed his intercom again.

"Major Hazell," a voice replied.

"Colonel Jartha, James. There's one other thing I'd like you to do before you arrange to return the item we just discussed."

"Yes, Sir?"

"Send someone out to find us a bottle of Crocyrean Brandy—the '51—and arrange to ship it to Venus."

"Where on Venus, Sir?" Hazell asked in a resigned tone.

"Why, I'm surprised at you, James!" Jartha chided. "Send it to the Blue Unicorn, Star Island, New Chicago. Send it care of Miss Ethyra Coran . . . and be sure you enclose a card with my name on it."



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